Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

To Infinity and Beyond!

Longyearbyen [longer-be-in] was named after an American [Longyear] who came here at the turn of the Twentieth Century and started the coal industry. Although he and the American Coal Company were gone before the end of the 1910’s, coal is still important to Longyearbyen. The name has nothing to do with the length of the winter nights even though they are endless.

The town is situated on the island of Spitsbergen, the largest and most populated of the islands in the Svalbard archipelago. There is no evidence of volcanism here, no hot water geysers or dormant volcanoes, just barren mountainsides and fjords. The hills are a combination of arctic tundra and plain rocks. There is little native vegetation and only one type of dwarf tree which was imported. It is even more barren and godforsaken than Lanzarote. Even the captain called this area “austere.” Still, it is an important place.

Tour opportunities were not great in Longyearbyen, especially so since we didn’t want to go in a zodiac or an ATV, so we arranged a tour with Spitsbergen Travel. The proposed itinerary was short on details:

The trip I offer you is a longer sightseeing tour with a private guide. The trip will go around Longyearbyen, Gruve 7 mountain, seed bank, Bjørndalen, Lunch osv. For one day 04.08 I can offer you can offer you a private tour and guide from 09.00 – 14.00 ca 4-5 hours sightseeing and lunch(dry teck, very good) in Bjørdalen(outside).

The six of us met before 9:00 and went outside to meet our guide. We were early, of course, so it followed that he was a few minutes late. We waited in the cold of Spitsbergen which was enjoying what here is considered a balmy summer day – 45 degrees Fahrenheit. This is one reason we moved to Florida.

Our guide today was Eric, not Eric the Red but Eric from Wisconsin who summers here working as a guide when he is not in school in Colorado. At least we had no language problems. We told him the first thing we wanted to see was the seed bank and he sped off on roads which are, for the most part, not paved. It seems that the rise and fall of the tundra/permafrost makes it futile to pave the roads which would just need constant resurfacing and repairing; the only paved roadways are in the village itself and even these are not immune to the earth’s actions.

Little did we know that visitors can not visit the seed bank. Silly us. The seed bank is officially the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Conceived by Bill Gates, it is a repository of seeds from all over the planet. Following a strict protocol, countries can submit seeds for inclusion in the seed vault which is built into a hillside above Longyearbyen. In the event of a nuclear war, survivors would have access to these seeds to start growing crops again. All that is visible of the Vault is a concrete entryway and a small sign. We were hoping for a visitors’ center with displays explaining the project, but security is tight.

As Eric explained the seed bank to us, we saw several reindeer grazing nearby on the little bit of vegetation available to them. The reindeer are one of only four native species in Svalbard. The others are the polar bear; the arctic fox; and the ptarmigan, a small bird made famous by Jack London. We did not see any of the others, although there were sea birds aplenty, but there was a sign warning about the presence of the “ice bears.” Even a tourist brochure handed to us as we left the ship this morning warns to stay away from the bears; it also suggests not traveling without a gun and the ability to use it. Eric told us that he was armed for our trip, but we assumed it was nothing personal.

We drove around the airport which currently has flights only by SAS. The original airport, built in the ‘50s, used to average 2 flights per year for its 20 years of operation. Now, passengers and perishable cargo arrive daily while bulk and non-perishables arrive by container ship. Spitsbergen and the rest of Svalbard are far from self-sufficient.

We also saw the remains of the tram-like buckets used to transport coal and coal miners to and from the mines. In addition, we saw a switching station where three of these transport lines came together. Only Gruve 7 is still open. It supplies the coal needed for the electrical power station. The other mines have closed as costs rose and the coal supply dwindled. Interestingly, the mine openings for the closed mines we saw were all halfway up mountainsides and Gruve 7 is on top of a mountain high enough that we drove through clouds to get to it.

That mountain was in Bjørdalen, a glacial valley outside of Longyearbyen. We had driven across the flat valley floor to get to the mine. Along the way, we saw both public and private dog kennels which were nothing more than wooden enclosures for the dogs inside chain link pens. It is illegal in Longyearbyen for the dogs to run free. Since Eric had two dogs with him, we saw the kennel up close when he left the dogs there for another guide to fetch for another tour. The arctic dogs are bred to work and need to be exercised regularly. When we left the kennel, we saw a team of about 12 dogs pulling a sleigh full of tourists down the highway [which was paved in the valley]. We saw another team doing the same thing later.

In addition to the mine entrance, the top of the mountain had a research station with giant parabolic antennas. Scientists are supposed to be studying the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, although Eric said that we were too far north for them to be seen in winter. Still, the effects can be studied. As a group, we decided that Spitsbergen would have made a good setting for a James Bond film – mountains, coal mines and cars, glaciers, tundra…We weren’t sure of how to get young girls in bikinis into the plot, but we are thinking about it, especially Ed and D.

We skipped lunch because there were still things to see and too little time to see them. Eric’s boss owns the Svalbard Airship Museum, so we were able to visit without paying. In the early part of the Twentieth Century, this area was a hotbed of airship activity. Airplanes had yet to be developed, but dirigibles had been. Explorers built their elaborate skeletons in large hangers, covered them [of course] and outfitted them with fuel, food and water so they could fly over the North Pole. Most were not successful. We read details of one such venture in 1909 in which the airship had 6 months of supplies for a flight which ultimately lasted three hours. Some of these pioneers were more successful; one even managed to fly from Svalbard to Alaska over what was labeled on the map simply as “uncharted.”

When we returned to the ship, we asked Eric what “dry teck” was since D had never gotten a response from the tour’s vendor. All we knew was that he kept writing that it was very good. Eric showed it to us and we were a little disappointed. We thought it would be some local delicacy like reindeer jerky. Marvin was hoping for something made with puffin which he has been looking for in several countries now. Sadly, dry teck is more like a military MRE [meal ready to eat]. It is dehydrated food which is mixed with boiling water to create a hot meal. They may be a delicacy for the hikers and campers, but we were glad not to partake.

Other brief notes on Longyearbyen: There is a university here which specializes in physical sciences. Norway is committed to making this a vacation and recreation area now that the coal industry has collapsed. All new buildings have to adhere to a bright color palette so the town looks a little like Key West. Remains from any human activity prior to 1946 cannot be touched, so there are piles of rubble from collapsed mine structures all around, not to mention the old power plant. Materials for recycling are separated and baled for shipment to the mainland for disposal. There are glaciers everywhere. It is a spare but beautiful place.

Back on board, we grabbed lunch in the Lido and then went to trivia which we lost again. [What dance did Fred and Ginger popularize in Flying Down to Rio? What epic blockbuster set all-time records for viewership when it was first shown on television in 1976?] Back in the room, MA was looking through our assorted papers and documents when she discovered that her visa for St. Petersburg had the wrong birth date! D checked and he had made the mistake, not the agency in SPB. To make things worse, we had no internet service because we are too far north! What to do?!? We were still in port and were able to get a strong 3-G signal on the Kindles, so D used it to email the agency. At this point, we have no answer and no internet, so we may have to wait a few days for an answer. By the time this is posted, we may have the answer, so keep reading.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


We slept in this morning and missed most of the breathtaking Magdalenefjord. We saw the stark beauty of the mountains interspersed with glaciers and snowy peaks. Multiply what we saw by a hundred and that’s the Magdalenefjord.

Trivia wasn’t much to write home about. We had fun and great answers but only some of them were the right ones. [Who won the World Series in 1994? What does quasar mean? On average, how many penguins does a polar bear eat each day?] It was after trivia that the day turned from a normal sea day into something truly spectacular.

Captain Albert had told us yesterday that he was going to try to find the polar ice shelf for us. Considering that there was a sea day on the schedule between 2 ports less than 5 hours from each other, we knew he had to do something. Sure enough, during trivia time he announced that we would be at the edge of the polar ice between noon and 4:30. It was actually closer to 12:15 that we were within photographic range and we crept closer and closer until 1:00.

Of course, we went on deck to see this even though it was a bit chilly. We donned our blue HAL vests [with the sleeves attached!] and spent a half hour on deck as we nosed through bits and pieces of broken ice. By 1:00, we were ready to go inside and get lunch, an Indian curry buffet. As we sat at a table by the window, we watched the ice shelf slowly recede because the ship was turning around and heading south. The Prinsendam has a reinforced bow [or “pointy part” as the captain calls it], but it is not an ice breaker and the captain was not going to chance getting trapped even on the edgy part of the ice floe. So we watched the polar ice as we ate lunch and reminisced about watching Gibraltar while we ate breakfast on the Rotterdam in 2001.

It would have been nice to stand on the ice since we had walked on Antarctica in 2004. The symmetry was still enough to leave us in awe. We were within 500 – 600 miles of the North Pole, closer than the ship got last year. Global warming and, more especially, the Iceland volcano shrank the ice cap so we had to go farther to find it. Even so, it was amazing to stand on deck and realize where we were. How many people had tried to reach the Pole and failed? How many had not even gotten this far? What can possibly top today?

Of course, D took lots of pictures, but amateur digital photography cannot capture the white of the ice cap or the blue of some of the ice any more than it can catch the magnificence of the glaciers. No one else viewing the pictures will understand unless they have been here.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Polar Bears and the Prinsendam

Our port today was Ny-Alesund which we think means “New Alesund” since there is an Alesund farther south. This bit of Norway is on Spitsbergen just like Longyearbyen. They are not very far from each other and we could have been here in a matter of hours were it not for the polar ice cap detour.

Ny-Alesund is a research station. Today there were 40 full-time residents but the number can shrink to as few as a dozen during the Arctic winter. Scientists from as many as a half-dozen or more countries spend time here studying the Arctic ecology, wildlife, glaciers and whatnot. They are almost completely isolated even from Longyearbyen. There appear to be no roads in or out so the only ways to get here are by boat or small aircraft; the local airport cannot handle large planes.

Originally, this was a mining town and the remnants of the coal operation are visible as one walks through it. An old engine and coal cars are prominent as one enters the “compound.” What was once the North Pole Hotel is now a gym and fitness center. Another building serves as the [part-time] pub and the school has been recycled into the town store. Of course, the labs are fairly new as is some of the housing. There is also a visitor center which shows in back-lighted panels photographs of native wildlife and explains some of Ny-Alesund’s mission.

In planning this trip, D found an e-mail address for the King’s Bay research station and enquired about tour opportunities. The response made the point that there were no tours because there were very few tourists but that the occasional cruise ship stopped by. We were told that we would have to walk to the visitor’s center [but not how far] and that we should bring rifles as protection against polar bears. Well, the walk was short, but the bears were missing so it worked out. D saw several of the “locals” heading out this morning and, sure enough, they appeared to have rifles on their backs. Last week, there was a polar bear attack farther north, so the danger is ever-present.

MA stayed on board today and didn’t really miss much. The King’s Bay station is surrounded by a large glacier [King Glacier?] which seems to split into four or five parts around hills/mountains. We think that at one point the glacier covered all of these mountains and that they have appeared only as the glacier melted and receded. Some of the fingers no longer reach the water, but several still do and exhibit that peculiar ice-blue reminiscent of Aqua Velva.

We tied for first in trivia but lost a tie-breaker to team which had eight members to our five. After trivia, the six of us went to the Viennese strudel fest and gorged on pastries; today was just a carbohydrate day. We surprised Ed with birthday presents from us and Barbara & Marvin and with a birthday cake. Indonesian wait-staff sang “Happy Birthday” to him and he was a good sport about all of the hoopla. When we told our dining room captain that we would be back in the spring, he told us to let him know the exact dates so he could put us together for dinner again. Ed & Roxanne are taking the second half of the cruise and Barbara & Marvin are thinking about doing that, too. The dining room may never be the same if the six of us are together again.

After dinner, we gave the casino a few dollars in the slots just to do something. The internet service is still not operational because of our position, but D went to the Ocean Bar to update the journal anyway. We are hoping to make a connection tomorrow so we can find out about St. Petersburg and the future of our marriage.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hail and Farewell

The water is almost smooth today with only a slight ripple as we head from Spitsbergen to Bergen on the Norwegian mainland. Skies are clearer and brighter and we can see puffy clouds in the distance instead of a constant cloud cover. We are heading away from the Arctic and should cross the Arctic Circle tomorrow. We will soon say goodbye to the midnight sun.

There were celebrations of different kinds today. We won resoundingly in trivia and won the coveted HAL coasters. [Who sang the theme song for the television show Rawhide? Who is the patron saint of music?] We may try to make up silly answers for the rest of the trip unless we see really good prizes.

The second celebration was a bit more serious. Ed and Roxanne joined us as we committed Henry and Pokey’s ashes to the sea. For those who don’t know, Henry was D’s great-uncle for whom he acted as principal care giver from December 1997 until Henry’s death in December 2004 at age 97. Pokey, whose real name was Elizabeth, was his wife; she died in 1990. Both donated their bodies to the Maryland Anatomy Board for medical research and both were eventually cremated. We have been custodians of their remains.

Henry and Pokey loved England and we thought at one point about making Lake Windemere in the Lake District their final resting place. We would have preferred someplace closer to England than the Norwegian Sea but decided that they wouldn’t care; it is the thought which counts. We had asked Richard in Guest Services to facilitate this for us and he, in turn, contacted the captain. Yesterday we received the message that the captain could accommodate us at 2:00 this afternoon.
We met the captain at the Front Office and followed him down one flight to deck 7 and then through a maze of exterior stairways to the rear of Deck 5 where we slid our biodegradable container and its contents through an opening and watched as it floated for a moment and then was lost to sight. After a brief stop in our cabins to wash our hands [an old ritual], we went to the Crow’s Nest for a drink in their honor.

Although this not is a Grand Voyage [note the capitals], we are being treated grandly. The dining room captain cannot do enough for us. When we were in the Ocean Bar yesterday watching the approach to the polar ice cap, we asked if hot chocolate was going to be available on deck for those who were braving the cold. Instead of telling us that it was available, he fetched three mugs of hot chocolate and brought them to us in the lounge. When we mentioned that we will be traveling on the Prinsendam again next year, he told us to give him our sailing dates so he could arrange for us to share a table. He has also made plans to move us to a table for four when Marvin and Barbara disembark in Amsterdam. And he made sure Ed’s birthday cake was delivered last night.

Others have been equally solicitous. Roger, the Beverage Manager, continues to sit with us when we come for a pre-dinner drink. We have learned a lot about his life as well as about his job. Richard, of course, has become our new best friend. He even offered to print a document for D on his own laptop [although the staff at the Front office did it when D asked]. We don’t know why everyone is going out of their way for us, but we are enjoying it without taking advantage. Yet.

Tonight is formal night again. The menu and decorations feature a Norwegian theme, so there will be lots of fish.

Tomorrow is another sea day and all of us hope there is finally an internet connection. Stay tuned for the answer to the question, “Will MA be able to leave the ship in St. Petersburg?”

1 comment:

  1. The info on the seed repository was fascinating. I never knew of it! Thanks
    On another note, I'll have to rememember to tell future cruisers to your area to pack a rifle (smile!). I don't see where the birthdate issue should be a problem unless som,e eagle eye custom person checks the detaol on the visa with the passport.